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According to a Phrygian tradition, at Telmissus, the ancient capital of Phrygia, which was in the eastern part of Phrygia that later became part of Galatia, an oracle decreed to the Phrygians, who found themselves temporarily without a legitimate king, that the next man to enter the city driving an ox-cart should become their king. Gordias, a poor peasant, happened to drive into town with his wife, both riding on an ox-cart, and he was declared king. In gratitude, he dedicated the ox-cart to the Phrygian god Sabazios, whom the Greeks identified with Zeus, and either tied it to a post or tied its shaft with an intricate knot of cornel (Cornus mas) bark. It was further prophesied by an oracle that the one to untie the knot would become the king of Asia, or at least so claimed the publicists in the circle of Alexander the Great.
The ox-cart, often depicted as a chariot, was an emblem of power and constant military readiness. It still stood in the palace of the former kings of Phrygia at Gordium in the 4th_century_BC when Alexander arrived, at which point Phrygia had been reduced to a satrapy of the Persian Empire.
In 333 BC, wintering at Gordium, Alexander attempted to untie the knot. When he could find no end to the knot, to unbind it, he sliced it in half with a stroke of his sword, producing the required ends (the so-called "Alexandrian solution"). Alexander did go on to conquer Asia, though the prophesy itself might have been later propaganda created in his behalf.
Today, the term "Gordian Knot" applies to an apparently insoluble problem requiring a bold and unconventional solution.
The knot may in fact have been a religious knot-cipher guarded by Gordium's priests and priestesses. Robert Graves suggested that it may have symbolized the ineffable name of Dionysus that, enknotted like a cipher, would have been passed on through generations of priests and revealed only to the kings of Phrygia.
Unlike fable, true myth has few completely arbitrary elements. This myth taken as a whole seems designed to confer legitimacy upon a dynasty change in this central Anatolian kingdom. To judge from the myth, apparently the new dynasty was not immemorially ancient, but had widely-remembered origins in a local, but non-priestly "outsider" class, represented by the peasant Gordias in his oxcart. Other Greek myths legitimize dynasties by right of conquest (compare Cadmus), but the legitimizing oracle in this myth suggests that the previous dynasty had been a race of priest-kings allied to the oracle deity.
- Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, 1993. ISBN 0140171991
- Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great,1973, pp 149-151. ISBN 0140088784
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